The Frank Warnock story

Boating NZ - - Contents - BY JOHN MAC­FAR­LANE

Frank Warnock founded Shore Sails 63 years ago and over the next 42 years grew the one-man band into the coun­try’s largest in­de­pen­dently-owned sail­maker. Shore Sails is no more, but the spritely 84-year-old can still be found at his sail­mak­ing bench. Here’s his story.

Born in 1934 in Auck­land, Warnock never had much time for for­mal school­ing.

“I hated school from the day I started un­til the day I left. It was wartime and all the good teach­ers were over­seas. The teach­ers we had weren’t any good and beat us reg­u­larly.”

Warnock wanted to be boat­builder but couldn’t get an ap­pren­tice­ship. But sail­maker Sandy Harold of Sail Spe­cial­i­ties, whom Warnock had com­mis­sioned to build a new main­sail for his P Class, sug­gested he ap­proach Leo Bouzaid.

Bouzaid said yes, and his com­pany, Sails and Cov­ers (col­lo­qui­ally known as Sacks and Bags), was then one of only three sail­mak­ers in Auck­land. The oth­ers were Boyd & Mcmaster and Sail Spe­cial­i­ties. Be­sides sails, Sails and Cov­ers also made cov­ers and, later on, tents.

In those days the shape of a sail wasn’t con­sid­ered as im­por­tant as the qual­ity of the hand fin­ish­ing, so hand­work fea­tured highly dur­ing Warnock’s 10,000-hour/five-year ap­pren­tice­ship. In­ci­den­tally, English sail­maker Rat­sey & Lapthorn was then con­sid­ered the best hand-fin­isher in the world and its sails were con­sid­ered the bee’s knees.

Ap­pren­tice­ship com­plete, Warnock left Sails and Cov­ers in 1955 and, in best Kiwi tra­di­tion, founded his own sail­mak­ing busi­ness a few months later. With a bor­rowed £150, he set up North Shore Sails and Can­vas in a tin shed in Taka­puna.

As the only sail­maker on the North Shore, he soon had a full or­der book. He even­tu­ally took on an ex-mo­tor trim­mer to make the cov­ers, leav­ing him free to build sails.

Eight years later he moved his busi­ness into a 230m3 room at the Taka­puna Boat­ing Club in Bayswa­ter – pre­vi­ously used for danc­ing and roller-skat­ing. With a wooden floor it was a vast im­prove­ment on the tin shed’s con­crete floor, and its bet­ter lo­ca­tion boosted busi­ness. Warnock re­named his busi­ness Shore Sails.

He even­tu­ally rented both floors of the Taka­puna Boat­ing Club premises and, over the next two decades ex­panded from one staff mem­ber to 25, the largest sail­maker in New Zealand of the pe­riod.

“Yachts were being launched al­most daily and the work just poured in – it was boom times.”

Fi­nan­cial suc­cess en­abled Warnock to buy his first keeler. In 1959 he or­dered the hull and decks of an 8.5m Val Class yacht from Salt­house Bros, which be­came La Mou­ette. Fin­ish­ing La Mou­ette off at home, he raced her suc­cess­fully for 10 years.

At the time the lo­cal car­a­van build­ing in­dus­try was also boom­ing and, be­side marine cov­ers, Shore Sails be­came one of the largest sup­pli­ers of car­a­van awnings.

But a ma­jor lim­i­ta­tion to do­ing busi­ness in those days was the re­stric­tive im­port li­cens­ing reg­u­la­tions. Warnock had to ap­ply for an im­port li­cence for his sail­cloth, a dif­fi­cult process and each li­cence only lasted 12 months.

He im­ported sail­cloth from lofts in Scotland, France, Ger­many, Ja­pan and the USA and, with a three-month lead-time between or­der­ing and de­liv­ery, some crys­tal ball gaz­ing was re­quired.

By the late 1960s cus­tomers were be­com­ing con­sid­er­ably more in­ter­ested in sail shapes. Hood’s 450mm wide sail­cloth was highly-re­garded and gave it a mar­ket edge. Con­scious of po­ten­tially los­ing busi­ness to Hood, Warnock ar­ranged with a Ger­man sail­cloth sup­plier to pro­duce 450mm-wide pan­els which were stamped Shore Cloth.

In 1972, he sold La Mou­ette and com­mis­sioned Snow Wa­ters to built him a 11.8m John Lidgard de­sign, which be­came Off­shore. Af­ter win­ning the Best-fin­ished Yacht at the 1974 Auck­land Boat Show, Off­shore was launched that same year.

Warnock still owns her and has sailed over 25,000 off­shore miles in her, in­clud­ing races to Noumea, Fiji and Round North Is­land. He’s also suc­cess­fully raced Off­shore lo­cally, keep­ing the same rac­ing crew for 18 years – no small feat.

Dur­ing those boom years of the 1960s and 1970s, he opened re­tail stores at Tau­ranga, Westhaven and Gulf Har­bour

Yachts were being launched al­most daily and the work just poured in – it was boom times.

Mari­nas. These stores would make the cov­ers on site, while gen­er­at­ing or­ders for new sails and sail repairs at the main loft.

But like ev­ery­one in the marine busi­ness, the Mul­doon boat and car­a­van sales tax of 1979 hit Warnock hard and within a week of the tax’s im­po­si­tion he’d lost all for­ward or­ders for yacht sails and car­a­van awnings.

“We could com­pete with other com­pa­nies on price, qual­ity and af­ter-sales ser­vice, but we couldn’t com­pete with the gov­ern­ment. The Mul­doon tax dec­i­mated the whole in­dus­try.”

Knocked down but not out, on a trip to the UK in 1980 Warnock vis­ited the third Per­sonal Com­puter World Show with his nephew. In­spired by the po­ten­tial, later that year he bought a new com­puter for $7,300, a con­sid­er­able sum in those days.

The com­puter had a whop­ping 48k of mem­ory and Richard Brown wrote a pro­gramme to ac­cu­rately quote new sails, which hugely ac­cel­er­ated the process.

Higher ef­fi­ciency be­came nec­es­sary – with the free­ing up of im­port li­cens­ing un­der the 1984 Labour gov­ern­ment there was con­sid­er­ably more com­pe­ti­tion from other sail­mak­ers, not only the big­ger over­seas fran­chise brands, but small, lo­cal op­er­a­tors.

But Warnock had to grad­u­ally trim back staff num­bers dur­ing the 1980s and early 1990s to suit the chang­ing mar­ket. He re­lo­cated around 1993 by mov­ing his loft to the Na­tional New Zealand Mar­itime Mu­seum.

Fol­low­ing Team New Zealand win­ning the Amer­ica’s Cup in 1995, rental rates in down­town Auck­land soared and Auck­land City Council even­tu­ally of­fered to buy out his lease.

So in 1997, Warnock sold off his re­tail shops and wound up Shore Sails. Dur­ing those 42 years Shore Sails had made more than 35,000 yacht sails, in­clud­ing over 6,000 Sea Bird dinghy sails and over 1,000 Hart­ley 16 sails. Im­pres­sive num­bers.

He’s had one per­sonal price to pay: “I reckon I’ve crawled on my knees from Auck­land to Welling­ton and back twice. My knees are bug­gered.”

But this story isn’t over, be­sides fam­ily, sail­mak­ing and sail­ing, two other pas­sions have fea­tured in Warnock’s life – mu­sic and fly­ing.

Dur­ing the early 1950s, he played Hawai­ian and steel gui­tar in dance bands, but when rock-and-roll ar­rived in the late 1950s dance bands be­came se­ri­ously un­cool.

So Warnock joined Red He­witt and the Buc­ca­neers, one of the pioneer rock-and-roll bands in Auck­land. But he found rock-and-roll hard on his hear­ing and af­ter two years left the band shortly be­fore it cut its first record.

Fly­ing is Warnock’s other ma­jor pas­sion and he started fly­ing lessons in Tiger Moths and Piper Cubs in 1959 at the Auck­land Aero Club, then a big grass pad­dock and now Auck­land Air­port.

He gained his pri­vate fly­ing li­cence in 1960 and his com­mer­cial air­line li­cence some years later. He also ob­tained his in­struc­tor’s li­cence and for many years was a se­nior in­struc­tor at the North Shore Aero Club and then chief in­struc­tor at the Ota­matea Aero Club in Ruawai.

Around 1970 Warnock took two years away from Shore Sails to fly a DC3 “a won­der­ful air­plane” for Fiji Air­lines. In all, he’s clocked up in ex­cess of 6,000 fly­ing hours.

He lost his wife Rona 11 years ago and in 2013 re­mar­ried Janet (nee Speight), the widow of one of his old friends, Mike Gar­rett. Janet’s a well-known sailor in her own right and the cou­ple take off every year for two months of solid cruis­ing in Off­shore. Warnock’s a life mem­ber of the Devon­port Yacht Club.

Since 1997, Warnock’s made awnings, cov­ers and sail­ing ac­ces­sories in the dou­ble garage at his Glen Eden home. Many of his teth­ers and bo­sun’s chairs are sold through marine re­tail stores. He’s got a soft spot for clas­sic yachts and built Rain­bow’s new sails and Ariki’s cov­ers.

The day of our in­ter­view I found Warnock sit­ting on the bench he made in 1956, hand-fin­ish­ing the sails for a friend’s seven-me­tre yacht. Later, I per­suaded him to dig out his old guitars, both New Zealand­made. Sadly, the neck on his steel-stringed 1950s Com­modore has warped so badly it’s un­playable, but his Hawai­ian gui­tar has sur­vived well and only needs new strings and a tune-up.

Among clas­sic yacht afi­ciona­dos, Warnock’s a leg­end and at 84 he’s in great shape. Watch­ing his gnarled fin­gers ex­pertly fin­ish a hand­sewn ring on the sails show the years of ex­pe­ri­ence and lit­tle tricks nec­es­sary to put every stitch in ex­actly the right place.

My fi­nal ques­tion – when was he go­ing to hang up his palm and nee­dle? – was met with “I hope I don’t have to because I love it.”

Now there’s the sign of a well-cho­sen ca­reer. BNZ

LEFT TO RIGHT Frank Warnock in his dou­ble garage sail loft; his well-used palm and knife; sail­ing his P Class, and sail­ing his 4.2m T Class Ivy.

CLOCK­WISE FROM TOP LEFT Off­shore on the wind; Off­shore un­der spin­naker; be­gin­ning a hand-sewn ring; the fin­ished ring; in the cock­pit of a Boe­ing 737.

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